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From Boy Geniuses to Mad Scientists: How Americans Got So Weird About Science

Science is the most interesting part of the school day, and it's the easiest way to get a child interested in their own education. That's one reason we encourage in interest in science among children, but it's not the only reason. At different times in our history, we've become very excited about the idea of our kids growing up to eventually make the world a better place. Historian Rebecca Onion, author of Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, tells us about how our changing views of science affect how we encourage our children to learn about it. Wartime particularly shaped public opinion, because great innovations come from wartime research, for good or evil.

After World War II, Americans embraced the bounty of wartime scientific advances and a thriving economy: They now had cheap goods made out of high-tech plastic, streamlined appliances, and home TV sets. But they were also haunted by the specters of the A-bomb and the H-bomb. The burgeoning Cold War with the U.S.S.R. raised fears that workaholic Soviet scientists, laboring relentlessly under Communism, were making progress faster than American scientists, a competition that played out in the Space Race. Mainstream American pop culture attempted to assure people with images of the perfect suburban family defeating Communism through consumerism. However, American B-movies, comics, and pulp fiction were overrun with evil robots, monsters from space, radioactive mutants—and “mad scientists.” All of this affected how Americans regarded scientific education.

“The fears spiked in Postwar America at particular moments,” Onion says. “When Sputnik became the first spacecraft launched into orbit in 1957, Americans panicked, like, ‘Oh my God, the Soviets have it over us. Whatever the great powers of science and technology are, they’re better at them.’ That launch created a lot of apprehension and fear that kids absorbed and processed. Tons of postwar popular culture addressed that combination of wonder and fear, especially about nuclear technology and space travel.”

But the pendulum swings both ways, and not always in a straight line. Girls and minority children were left out of the public push for science education until recently. Science fiction and horror movies gave us reason to fear science. And when a child reaches a certain age, an interest in science can brand them as nerdy. Read an overview of how our culture had shaped science education for kids over time at Collectors Weekly.

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